The analysis yielded a total of 247 semantic units, which were categorized into the themes, “the good, but insufficiency, living environment in Samho-dong,” “the health environment in Samho-dong needs improvement,” “small efforts to improve Samho-dong,” and “points of improvement for a better Samho-dong” (Table 3). Below, the participants’ experiences for each category are described.

Table 3 Findings per category

1. The good, but insufficiency, living environment in Samho-dong

According to the participants’ experience, Samho-dong is well suited for self-sufficiency by growing a vegetable garden and good for exercising, is certainly a good living environment for older people who are the main residents. Nonetheless, dark streets within the residential complex made the participants hesitant in engaging in afternoon activities and the poor transportation infrastructure made it difficult to retain a normal lifestyle in terms of food, clothing, and shelter.

1-1. The main residents are seniors

All participants agreed that Samho-dong had an aging population. One participant claimed that it had been a long time since children had been seen around the neighborhood. Some participants expressed disappointment that there were so few children, given that Samho-dong is a good environment for children, with the absence of an entertainment district and the presence of good playgrounds.

“As the population continues to age in Samho-dong, there are very few pregnant women. There are not many children, so there are very few elementary schools.” (Participant 2)

“The first thing that came to mind when I heard the term ‘vulnerable population’ was that the majority of the residents in this area are seniors. Especially since there are a lot of people spending time in Park A…” (Participant 13).

1-2. Restrictions in transportation due to poor walking and transportation infrastructure

The poor transportation infrastructure in Samho-dong despite its large elderly population, is a weakness that cannot go unnoticed (Fig. 1). Difficulty in finding parking spaces and narrow and dark roads was a big problem for all residents (Fig. 2). The infrastructure under which bussing occurred, which is mainly used by the elderly, is deplorable. One participant explained that there are not many bus routes in Samho-dong, not to mention that no seating is available in bus stops despite long wait times, which forces residents to sit on the ground while waiting. Other participants claimed that although some bus stops had seating available, the seats are uncomfortable, and the bus stops environment is inadequate considering the large elderly population.

Fig. 1
figure 1

Poor bus stop conditions (Participant 12)

Fig. 2
figure 2

A dark street (Participant 8)

1-3. The abundance of detached house makes it ideal for gardening

The residential infrastructure in Samho-dong is suitable for growing vegetable gardens and serves as one factor that inspired residents to stay in Samho-dong (Fig. 3). Most participants had a vegetable garden on their roof top or in the front of their house. One participant expressed satisfaction in being able to self-produce seasonal vegetables.

“There are many residents who garden in Samho-dong thanks to the abundance of land. There are also many elderly women. This might be why there are many people who are self-sustainable. Since there are many seniors. We are doing that as well.” (Participant 2)

Fig. 3
figure 3

A photograph of organic vegetables grown in the garden (Participant 6)

1-4. Having parks and a river nearby make exercise more accessible

The presence of multiple parks and nearby rivers and mountains was a local pride of Samho-dong. The fact that there were so many good walking trails was a factor in promoting the participants’ health (Fig. 4). Participants have said that because there are many good trails for walking regardless of day or night, which made Samho-dong a good place to be active despite some inconveniences in the residential infrastructure.

“Although the traffic conditions in Samho-dong are inconvenient, it has parks, and nature is so beautiful and the scenery at night is beautiful. Even if it is a little dark, my body feels so light when I walk and I love it.” (Participant 12)

Fig. 4
figure 4

A photograph of a park in Samho-dong (Participant 4)

2. The health environment in Samho-dong needs improvement

The participants perceived the generally dark streets of Samho-dong and poor transportation infrastructure as factors hindering the influx of younger people into the area. A sense of loneliness was prevalent in Samho-dong, where the majority of the residents are seniors, rather than liveliness, and one could easily find seniors spending time alone.

2-1. Feelings of anxiety lead to withdrawal from outdoor activities

Although ideal for growing a vegetable garden and good for exercising, there were many limitations in Samho-dong as a residential environment. Participants claimed that they felt anxious leaving their homes because of the dark streets and tangled wires. It is said that the streets are dark because the streetlights are turned off in time for the population of migratory birds, which Samho-dong is known for, to sleep, and the height of the streetlights themselves are low. The dark neighborhood hindered participants’ outdoor activities and became a source for problems, such as secretly becoming a smoking area. Powerlines coming out of houses were also cited as one of the reasons participants felt anxious. One participant complained of not wanting to look up at the sky because of the tangled wires and expressed being fearful of electromagnetic waves (Fig. 5).

“There must be a lot of electromagnetic waves and is that the internet outlet over there? I hate looking at the sky because I feel like it is going to fall.” (Participant 11)

“The darkness, it’s really not a big deal during the day, but when it gets dark at night, you get negative thoughts in your head. It’s also scary to see a cat in the dark with its eyes twinkling. So even if I want to go out to exercise in the evening, I get hesitant and, in the end, everything is connected.” (Participant 13)

Fig. 5
figure 5

Tangled electrical wires (Participant 11)

2-2. Poor transportation infrastructure is a cause for inconvenience for the residents

Although public transit should be well equipped if parking spaces are limited and the roads are narrow, this was not the case in Samho-dong. Encountering difficulties with parking everyday caused the participants stress. Parking that blocked a portion of the sidewalk acted as barrier for pedestrians (Fig. 6).

“In the past, Samho-dong was evaluated as having good air, but now there are no young people because the traffic is so inconvenient.” (Participant 12)

Fig. 6
figure 6

A car parked on the sidewalk (Participant 2)

The public transit conditions, which are as suboptimal as the parking issues, were said to be the reason why young people no longer stay in Samho-dong. The issues included there being only a few routes and long intervals between busses. Although bus stops must be well-equipped for waiting if intervals between busses are long, some bus stops did not even have seating (Fig. 7). In Samho-dong, where seniors who face difficulties in using smartphones make up the majority of the population, it was easy to find seniors waiting endlessly for a bus.

“Younger people can check the bus times by installing an app on their mobile phone, but seniors end up waiting for a long time because they can’t do that. They wait for a long time” (Participant 11)

“Seating, there is no seating. Elderly women sit on the roads over there on boxes. In the middle of winter, they find boxes and sit on the ground. Right now, it is a problem. Insufficient bus routes, no fans or air conditions, let alone seats, this is our neighborhood.” (Participant 15)

Fig. 7
figure 7

Bus stop lacking facilities (Participant 5)

2-3. Residents who require assistance are alone

It was not uncommon for participants to find seniors outside, alone (Figs. 8 and 9). Although there is a senior community center, it was overcrowded, and some stayed outside. Regardless of the season, there were many instances when seniors were observed sitting still in a park in Samho-dong. One participant expressed frustration that seniors seemed to spend their days sitting at the park with alcohol as they had no one to talk to.

“There are too many seniors, so the seniors who are outside… (omitted) cannot be accommodated in the senior community center because it is full beyond its capacity. So now that winter is here, they just sit on the chairs wearing thick clothes, observe, then return home…“ (Participant 15)

Fig. 8
figure 8

A senior sitting alone (Participant 13)

Fig. 9
figure 9

Everyday encounter with a senior with dementia (Participant 2)

3. Small efforts to improve Samho-dong

Residents had a sense of ownership of Samho-dong. Thus, they made various attempts to solve issues, some of which led to actual improvements. The participants expressed discontent that the efforts of the local community did not meet the efforts of the residents.

3-1. Taking initiative for my own and others’ health

Participants have been actively working towards a healthy lifestyle for themselves and the residents. Most participants had taken residence-related roles, such as community leader. Such roles imposed an unspoken sense of responsibility for the neighborhood, as opposed to perceiving Samho-dong as an individual place of residence. This led to proactiveness towards serving the area. First, the participants tried to improve the local environment. They aimed to improve the residential and transportation infrastructure by regularly filing complaints to the local community, engaging in resident meetings, and installing flowerpots (Fig. 10). Looking after the vulnerable population was another responsibility taken on by the participants. They brought chairs for seniors who were sitting on the ground due to the lack of seating at bus stops. Furthermore, they actively reached out to elderly residents with dementia who were alone to ensure that they could receive support for living.

“I called her daughter to apply at the town office, but the daughter, for some reason, did not. So now she’s all alone… the helper doesn’t even come anymore. Doesn’t come and she just sits there, all alone. So now I’m her friend.” (Participant 2)

Fig. 10
figure 10

Flowerpots for improving the residential environment (Participant 6)

3-2. Local community efforts to improve the health environment in Samho-dong

Most participants felt that the local community did not take proactive measures to improve Samho-dong. Nevertheless, some participants shared experiences in improving health-related conditions in Samho-dong through the efforts of the local community. One such effort was distributing high-visibility vests to lower the risk of accidents among seniors who collect waste from early in the dawn. Another participant reflected on serving low-sodium food in the community senior welfare center, a local community effort to care for the health of seniors.

“High-visibility vests for nighttime since it’s dangerous.

I think the Ulsan metropolitan city hall checked and distributed one for all of them.” (Participant 1)

“When you go to the community senior welfare center, they serve food with very little sodium. Actually seniors hate it. Because it tastes bad. They shout, like, ‘Did you rinse the food in water or what?’ When they do that, they put salt on a plate and give it to them. Looking at it now the community senior welfare center prepares food with very little sodium.” (Participant 4).

4. Points of improvement for a better Samho-dong

Despite its shortcomings, Samho-dong is a valuable location where life stories are told for the participants. The participants emphasized the importance of consideration between residents and collaborative thinking and efforts of the local community in improving Samho-dong.

4-1. Residents must be considerate and make an effort to solve resident-level problems

To improve Samho-dong, the participants emphasized the need for an improved sense of awareness and cooperation among the residents, beyond the participants themselves. Specifically, to improve the street conditions such as leaving piles of objects and garbage in the streets, pointed out that selfish mind and attitude must change (Fig. 11). To overcome parking issues, one must make an effort to refrain from double parking and instead opt to use one’s own yard or park farther away (Fig. 12).

Fig. 11
figure 11

A photovoice activity log entry related to littering (Participant 4)

Fig. 12
figure 12

A photovoice activity log entry related to efforts to overcome parking issues (Participant 13)

4-2. A health environment suitable for the residential characteristics must be established

In consideration of the large elderly population among the residents of Samho-dong, infrastructure improvements such as filling potholes and creating seating in bus stops must take priority. In addition, the participants expressed a wish for rest areas to be created for seniors who are out alone and for the park spaces in Samho-dong to be used for various programs designed for seniors. Participants anticipated that the effective utilization of local public resources by the local community would alleviate issues regarding the management of exercise equipment and street conditions. Participants were hopeful for residents’ health to be improved and Samho-dong to become an optimal residential neighborhood by establishing a health environment well-suited to the characteristics of Samho-dong.

“Truthfully, if anything else can be changed, it would be great if a program for seniors to entertain themselves or exercise in the park can be developed.” (Participant 11)

“Since it’ll take a long time to file a complaint to the town hall and everything, if community leaders can delegate for the purposes of volunteering or, since there are many groups in Samho-dong, if one group can manage Park A and another group works on another park, just like our own homes. Still, since we can’t fix anything broken or anything like that, the town hall should take care of that but in terms of managing, that should be enough.” (Participant 4).

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