Great Design Cities around the WorldA well-designed city and a good design city are two different things. China builds a new metropolis almost daily it seems, but not many would be considered great design cities, efficient though they may be. Our beloved Hong Kong has some of the best infrastructure in the world and some unremarkable buildings — ironic in a city defined by buildings.

A completely unscientific opinion poll (from The Arch, World Design Capital, Conde Nast Traveler among others) identifies some of the world’s great design cities. Some are completely unsurprising, some are relative newcomers, but all are making noise to be noticed for urban landscape. Some are also strong investment locations.

Barcelona is a nearly ideal marriage of history and modernity. A popular tourist destination — for its architecture — Barcelona’s new Port Vell, Agbar Tower and Frank Gehry’s The Fish attract visitors as frequently as Gaudi’s Sagrada Familia. Tourists are a prime rental sector but investors need to heed Barcelona’s short-term rental laws. It’s believed prices in the city have bottomed out, and so the second home market is buoyant and there are still good deals floating around prime districts.

Germany is historically associated with design and the East-West reunification kick-started a wave of redevelopment in every arena; central Berlin is now a marvel of architectural creativity (the Sony Centre, the revitalised Potsdamer Platz). Berlin is a good buy these days, as steady population increases and the trend towards capital cities continues to drive prices and rents up. Germany’s powerhouse economy and elite position within the EU are actually creating demand in Berlin, which should continue for the rest of 2013 and beyond.

Second only to Berlin for being synonymous with architecture (the industry’s most prestigious prize is named for native son Jay Pritzker), Chicago combines modern design and green public spaces (Millennium Park) with its rich history: this is the birthplace of the skyscraper, without which there is no Hong Kong. Chicago’s median home price drop — 38 percent in 2012 — could make the city a smart buy right now in a flat market. Chicago is a significant economy with consistent rental demand.

An ICSID World Design City selection, Helsinki is probably best known for its Finnish social innovations, but slots nicely alongside its Scandinavian design-forward neighbours. Compact, connected and inherently innovative, Helsinki’s embedded design is remarkable to look at and it makes life easier and/or better: the goal of good design. Office investment is currently the strongest sector, as Finland’s (a safe haven market) economy is expected to return to pre-2008 levels this year.

Say “deco” and Miami pops to mind. Despite nearby Shanghai’s collection of art deco structures, Miami still rules in the area of design incorporation into the modern city. The beach district was originally envisioned as a luxury tourist destination and its singular pastels, and fluid geometric patterns carry on that tradition today. Like many American cities, Miami’s prices dropped drastically post-2008 and are just starting to rebound. A major hub for Latin-American business and a constant draw for talent, foreign investment in Miami is helping fuel its property revival.

Another ICSID choice, Seoul has long been the region’s ugly duckling but its aggressive urban renewal of late has been matched by increasing architectural innovation. Koreans’ cultural pride provides a distinct identity, and tech savvy Seoul is starting to look as futuristic as its famed exports. But the city is also in the midst of a household debt crisis that’s hurting its housing market. Prices and transactions have dropped, and while regional neighbours try to cool things down, Seoul is looking to incentivise purchasing and boost the property sector.

Its location on the harbour made it the only place for the iconic Opera House in retrospect but Sydney’s prime location and surrounding hills and beaches have given rise to some of the world’s most innovative sustainable architecture and modern offices, institutions and residences. Sydney’s relatively close proximity to Asia makes it a favourite, with its lifestyle topping the list of why people move there. It’s Australia’s capital in all ways except officially and properties in the prime CBD are strong renters.

A newcomer to the design elite, Toronto has often been targeted for its architectural dullness. Between the city’s urban renewal projects that tap its vanishing history and the exciting — and divisive — additions to institutions by Frank Gehry, Will Alsop, Daniel Libeskind and Norman Foster, Toronto has become Canada’s design hot spot. North America’s strongest condo market cooled down in April, which should bring supply under control, but prices are up nonetheless. Developers continue with plans for major projects and Toronto remains a major business and education hub in stable, liberal Canada with strong ties to Asia.