In the rancorous political environment of this year's presidential election campaign, American voters seem to be polarized as never before. In the environment of real estate development and land-use planning, opinions about "smart growth" are becoming just as polarized.

Smart growth proponents and opponents are drawing ever sharper lines, honing ever narrower definitions and more assertively taking sides. "Either with me or against me" attitudes seem to prevail among both advocates and critics.

Unfortunately, overly polarized discourse is inherently obstructive and misleading. It distorts and oversimplifies, obscuring rather than illuminating complex realities that are variable with time, place and resources.

Sharp division into factions inevitably occurs when people resist dealing with complexity. Unwilling or unable to analyze the multiple, substantive aspects of a complex issue, some people are naturally drawn to boiled-down versions. Never mind the facts -- just a few, succinct black-or-white highlights.

Regrettably, smart growth is suffering this fate. The term is being used more and more as a defining label, as if it were a code word for a specific cause or movement zealously espoused by faithful adherents.

Skeptics accuse smart growth of being another "-ism" dreamed up by planners and laden with ideological dogma, restrictive principles and prescriptive formulas that tell people how to think and what to do. Some equate it with New Urbanism or see it as a no-growth movement in disguise.

Opponents fault smart growth for reasons that lend themselves to bullet point summaries. Among their protests:

* It idealistically promotes public transit over private automobiles and road building, denigrating America's attachment to, and dependency on, automobiles and the freedom of movement that automobiles symbolize.

* It fights against a basic real estate market reality -- most families prefer to own suburban, detached houses served by suburban road networks for commuting, shopping centers with vast parking lots, and well-funded schools.

* It strongly favors higher urban densities and compact development over lower suburban and exurban densities, also contrary to consumer preferences.

* It drives up housing prices in metropolitan areas by constraining suburban and exurban residential development through growth boundaries, slow-growth and no-growth areas.

* It advocates functional and demographic diversity in compact communities, despite persistent homeowner preferences for neighbors like themselves.

While these critiques address key issues, all rest on the belief that smart growth is utopian and unrealistic. Moreover, they imply that there is a hidden agenda: Limit use of cars; stop building roads; force commuters onto buses or trains; raze suburbs; demolish shopping centers; make families live in apartments or rowhouses; put home builders out of business.

In reality, smart growth is a broad term encompassing a broad public policy goal: to wisely plan, distribute and manage physical growth to achieve objectives on which most citizens agree.

These objectives include: easing traffic congestion and increasing mobility; conserving energy; reducing pollution; providing adequate infrastructure and optimizing its use; expanding housing choices as well as affordable housing opportunities; improving regulatory effectiveness; matching public service expenses with public sector revenues; and, not incidentally, protecting and enhancing the cultural, aesthetic and natural assets of communities.

Smart growth means achieving better balance -- between roads and transit, between high and low densities, between developing land and preserving landscapes -- and using resources more efficiently. It is not an either-or game in which each player has but one choice: owning or not owning a car; buying an expensive house or a tight apartment; or living in the middle of the city or far out in the country.

Smart growth requires making primarily marginal changes, shifting behavior in ways that steadily but positively improve the balance and, in fact, expand and deepen the spectrum of market choices. The ultimate intention is to design and build better neighborhoods, no matter where they are or how densely built.

My own neighborhood, the tree-filled Palisades area of Washington, could be a model. In this older, moderately dense Northwest neighborhood there are single-family houses, duplexes, row houses and apartment buildings. I can comfortably walk or bike to the grocery store and drugstore, several restaurants, numerous convenience stores, a full-service gas station, two banks, three dry cleaners, a Starbuck's, a travel agency, a public elementary school, a federal park and a D.C. park with tennis courts, playground, tot lot and recreation center. Although the nearest subway stop is a bit far, the bus stop is one block away.

Nevertheless, we have two cars and drive to work, as well as around the District and region, and we probably would own and use two cars no matter where we lived. But because this neighborhood offers a broad range of desirable amenities within walking distance, we make somewhat fewer daily automobile trips -- perhaps four or five instead of six or eight -- than if we lived in a more remote subdivision where driving everywhere would be a necessity.

In many ways, the Palisades neighborhood exemplifies what smart growth aims to accomplish. Reasonably compact, it provides services and mobility alternatives that shorten or eliminate automobile trips, in turn reducing exhaust emissions and energy consumption. With dwellings ranging in size from 1,000 to 10,000 square feet, it is economically, socially and architecturally diverse. And not too many years ago, it was even affordable.

Why aren't we creating many more neighborhoods with similar characteristics? One big obstacle is in the way: Too many people look at smart growth through a polarizing prism, choosing sides and then failing to see the costly alternative to smart growth -- "dumb growth."

Roger K. Lewis is a practicing architect and a professor of architecture at the University of Maryland.