City planning is an art that can work with citizens' preferences or against them. Auckland's planners have usually tried to counter them, prescribing more compact development for a place where people prefer to sprawl.

A discussion document published yesterday for the new Auckland Council's "spatial plan" contains nothing to suggest the regional planning philosophy has changed.

The document nominates three parts of the city as "top spatial priorities": the city centre, the Manukau Harbour side of South Auckland and all of West Auckland between the Waitemata and the Waitakeres.

Those are zones where Auckland's economic innovation and productivity could be boosted, in the planners' view, by activities that could take advantage of transport links, population growth and education amenities, among other things.

All three areas have room for commercial or industrial growth, as do several others that are not favoured - New Lynn, Silverdale, Glen Innes, East Tamaki - but the planners want to push industry westward and housing with it.

In their "big picture" for Auckland's future they have nothing to say about the North Shore, the eastern suburbs, Pakuranga-Howick, Botany, the Hibiscus Coast, Matakana or Mahurangi.

Those are the sort of places that shape Auckland's development. They are close to the coastal attractions that people value most. It is no accident that Auckland continues to spread along its eastern coasts. The numerous bays and beaches of the gulf, its scenic islands, sheltered sailing grounds and mild sea temperatures, mainly explain why so many live there.

The price they pay is often a long drive to work but so many are willing to pay it that motorways are congested. The Auckland Council's answer to congestion is not motorway tolls or other charges that might help manage traffic. They would prefer to entice people to live inland, in the city's southwestern and northwestern reaches.

They invite comment on this and all other suggestions in the document. It poses questions such as, "Should the Auckland Plan support a compact city model that focuses growth in centres and corridors, supports public transport and protects rural areas from further residential and business development?" The language and lack of starkly presented alternatives will limit the public response. Only the like-minded are likely to discuss the document.

The Green Party was the first to hail it yesterday, praising it as a blueprint for "a world-class eco-city ... where people can easily and safely walk and cycle or use modern, efficient buses and trains to get to vibrant town centres". Curiously, the document paints Auckland as a "rural city", noting that half its area is farmland.

As with the city's coastal attractions, the document writers imagine Aucklanders can enjoy its rustic environment without actually living in it. They appear to hope we will live within compact urban limits and be content to know the coast and countryside are not far away. Perhaps we will cycle there.

This is not the Auckland we know, is it the Auckland we want? The discussion document frames most of its questions in a way that seems likely to produce the answers planners want.

But it was ever thus. Cities need some idea of their desired future to guide their decisions on land use and building applications but plans are not written in stone.

When they are pitched against popular preferences for living and travelling, the planners are destined for disappointment. Auckland's coastal sprawl has defied many previous designs and no doubt will do so again.