I think there are two types of cities: mountain cities and water cities. I guess technically there's also a third type, which is neither, and a fourth type, which is both, but let's not worry about that. When it comes to easy access to nature, I think most great cities have access to one or the other. Some very lucky cities, like Vancouver, are blessed with both a beautiful coast and access to mountains. For the rest of us unlucky city slickers, typically you only get one type of nature at a time.
I think I've kind of noticed a difference in energy between these two types of cities. Cities by the sea have a very relaxed approach to nature. The water is a place to go and relax. There's beaches and boardwalks, riverfronts and romantic bridges. There's always something pretty to look at, with beautiful ocean sunrises or sunsets anytime you want them. Perfect picturesque skylines framed by the sea. Maybe even peninsulas or little islands to get away from it all, with boat rides out into the unknown for the adventurous.
Chicago is definitely a water city. The midwest is famously flat, and while the absence of rolling hills certainly makes it easy to bike it does not provide for stunning scenery. No mountains for hundreds of miles. What we do have, however, is a beautiful river and a beautiful great lake. We have dozens of beaches running up and down the city, and the lakefront trail is the best way to get across by bike. We have a pier jutting out into the water filled with rides and amusements fit for a tourist. On any warm summer day you can see the shiny white sails of sailboats sticking up into the air, like a sparse forest of plastic trees. People here love the water, and love spending time by it.
However the relationship between people and nature in a water city is one of leisure and relaxation. While we have serious swimmers, and many other cities might have watersports and surfing, I still find that these are relatively laid back pastimes. Going to the water is an easy and natural thing; its beauty is given freely without demand. Without special training or equipment you cannot do much in the water; even swimming is often curtailed by the requirement for safety.
Mountain cities, on the other hand, do not share their vistas freely. To climb a mountain is not an easy thing. It's not like the beach where you can drive up to it and you're there, will all the amenities of a city nearby. Ascending up into the peaks is admittedly easier now that we've invented automobiles (in ye olden days, I understand that building your home on top of a hill was quite a power move or perhaps a just a longing for solitude). However, there's a reason that our cities tend to be nestled in the verdant valleys nestled cozily between great peaks. The top of a mountain is simply a hostile environment for the things humans need.
And yet. Everybody wants to experience seeing the summit of a mountain, or at least as close as they can get. Millions of hikers challenge themselves every year, to get to difficult and inaccessible places to see what can't be seen without a lot of grit and determination. In mountain cities, the best of the nature is not just out waiting to be found. You have to fight for it, and take it.
There are a lot of things like camping, backpacking, off roading. These aren't necessarily pleasurable experiences especially at first glace. They are worth it because there is a challenge to overcome and a sense of glorious accomplishment when you do overcome it. And, along the way, some beautiful beautiful moments in nature that are impossible to get without putting in the time and effort. For the connection with the outdoors comes with the journey, not in the destination, and there's no shortcut for that.
I find that many of the cities on the west coast of the USA are like this. Denver being an obvious example, but so much of California or Arizona or Oregon is filled with places like this. Otherwise uninspired cities that stand out for their spectacular access to nature and filled with people keen on doing so. These "granola munchers" may get flack for popularizing a particular type of relationship with the outdoors, but you have to respect their tenacity.
I suppose if I had to categorize myself in one of these two buckets; whether I head out to nature to relax and get away from it all or whether I aim to challenge myself and grow? I suspect you already know the answer. I find the splendor of the summit to be irresistable. The more I'm warned that I can't or shouldn't do something, the more I want to prove everybody wrong. And unlike people, who can be understood and reasoned with, nature is vast, cold, and unyielding.
Accomplishing something in the outdoors, if you are challenging yourself, is a true accomplishment. There's no 9/11 you can call if things get bad, often no cell phone reception at all. There's no way to get more supplies without either bringing it in with you or wresting it from the leafy grip of mother nature herself. The animals out there are true animals. They are wild and ferocious - the proud and noble ancestors of the domesticated knockoffs we keep in our cities - and they remind you that at the end of the day you too are just pale fleshy bag made out of meat.
In this journey, in these realizations, there is an austere beauty that you will never find elsewhere. It's something primal within me that wants to climb to the highest peak, and gaze out over the valley and luxuriate in the land I have conquered. And if we live in a day and age where I cannot conquer land, then at least I know that in reaching that peak I will have conquered myself.