“Visualize it,” Proft says, gesturing across a desert she’ll transform into a city. “Over here, this will be the national capital. There will be circular boulevards, radiating out. Then towers, but 40 storeys maximum; this isn’t Dubai! And over here, traditional courtyard housing… You can imagine it, can’t you?”

Imagine it? A new city of a quarter-million people? Why not? This is the United Arab Emirates, where inventing new cities has become the sport of kings. An hour’s drive up the coast, the sheiks of Abu Dhabi’s sister emirate of Dubai have spent a decade conjuring imagined forms from the desert and the shallow sea.

An island suburb in the shape of a palm tree? A grove of skyscrapers around an invented lagoon? A climate-controlled ski resort? These things exist. I saw them. (And so have you, if not in person, then at least in photographs.) Under construction: the world’s tallest building, the biggest mall and a neo-Manhattan branded by Rem Koolhaas. Inland, graders were shaping what will be the world’s biggest airport, meant to serve a conurbation of 5, 6… no, make that 10 million people. The earth movers are fuelled by petrodollars, investment from across the hemisphere and, most of all, the wilful imagination of Dubai’s Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum.

The desert is witnessing a race between two competing visions of urbanity, and Dubai jumped the gate first.

So the most remarkable thing about this particular patch of sand here on the edge of Abu Dhabi is that it remains an empty patch of sand. This is what distinguishes Abu Dhabi, one of the world’s richest cities, from its scene-stealing sister, Dubai. It’s also why Proft and a half-dozen urban planners from Vancouver have quit Canada for a life in the desert. In Abu Dhabi, they see a chance to build a high-culture, low-carbon antidote to Dubai. The desert is witnessing a race between two competing visions of urbanity, and Dubai jumped the gate first.

When Dubai opened up its property markets to foreign ownership in 2002, it was like taking a jackhammer to a long-dammed lake of capital. This flood has made Dubai the de facto downtown for the Middle East and much of South Asia. “Within a three hour flight are more than 2 billion people, of which a huge proportion either want to live, work or invest in a home here,” one evangelical Dubai property consultant explained to me. Abu Dhabi opened up its property market three years after Dubai. But when the urban-development dollars came roaring up the Gulf coast, Abu Dhabi’s sheiks paused. They looked up the highway and decided to take a detour. As the nation’s capital, Abu Dhabi should be dignified, orderly, refined, they decided.

First, Abu Dhabi did what every city in the throes of an identity crisis does: It summoned the starchitects. But Abu Dhabi is not just any anxious city. Not even close. It controls nine out of every 10 barrels of oil in a country that owns nearly 10 percent of the world’s oil reserves. Why rely on one famous architect when you can hire the intercontinental dream team? Zaha Hadid, Frank Gehry, Jean Nouvel, Tadao Ando and Sir Norman Foster were enlisted to design a clutch of iconic performance spaces and museums.

The models all sit in the lobby of the Emirates Palace hotel (Abu Dhabi’s stately answer to Dubai’s sail-shaped Burj Al Arab). Hadid’s performing-arts centre is the coolest. It resembles a leaf – or perhaps an insect wing or maybe a translucent lizard – crawling toward the sea. The Louvre and the Guggenheim will load up Nouvel’s and Gehry’s respective museums with treasures. And Foster got a second assignment here: creating a zero-carbon, walled, green-tech hub/suburb for 50,000 people.

The impending building boom in Abu Dhabi produced much civic anxiety. The city was on the verge of tripling in size, and there was no urban plan.

But if Dubai had taught its neighbour anything, it is that fantastical architecture alone cannot complete a city nor protect it from being transformed by a tsunami of unrestrained growth. The impending building boom in Abu Dhabi produced much civic anxiety. Abu Dhabi was on the verge of tripling in size, and there was no urban plan. Until recently, the planning process consisted of developers simply pitching their ideas directly to the crown prince, Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, and hoping for an approving nod.

“There was a huge energy from developers that we didn’t want to lose,” Falah Al Ahbabi, soft-spoken general manager of Abu Dhabi’s new Urban Planning Council, told me, pausing to adjust his impeccably white gutra. “But losing our city, losing our identity, that’s not something we would negotiate. We needed a plan.”

Google “sustainable city.” Three of your first 10 hits will likely mention Vancouver. The city has won its green laurels for its ban on freeways and for the vertical neighbourhoods that have turned its downtown into a model of vibrant, walkable urbanity. Larry Beasley had just retired as the city’s co-director of planning when he got an e-mail from someone claiming to represent the crown prince of Abu Dhabi. It looked like a typical spam scam – the Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi, indeed! Beasley ignored the message, but the e-mails kept coming, followed by calls from Al Ahbabi himself. Finally, Beasley relented and crossed the ocean. And he was beguiled by Abu Dhabi.

Remember this: City planners get jazzed by details that seem unimportant to most of us. Things like population density and robust, connected street grids. Abu Dhabi has both. The mid-rise towers that crowd its downtown blocks may be derided as boring by Dubai’s form fetishists, but they shade wide sidewalks and a spicy collection of shops, restaurants and fragrant hookah cafés. Its avenues are broad, lined with palms and roomy enough for streetcars. There are parks, shade-giving sails and many new blocks of promenade on its lovely seafront Corniche, where Emiratis and the foreigner labourers who build their cities stroll on warm evenings. All this gave Beasley hope. This city has great bones, he thought.