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New look creates buzz at Trafalgar Square

Trafalgar Square, the London landmark famed for its pigeons, fountains and towering Lord Nelson column, reopened to the public Thursday after a $42-million renovation.

Cars, trucks and buses that used surrounding streets have been banished from the north side, opening up a grand vista from the front of the National Gallery.

"It's wonderful to be able to sit here and enjoy a break without cars buzzing behind you," said Jim Whitfield, 68, a visitor from New Zealand, sitting on the new steps leading from the square to the popular museum.

London Mayor Ken Livingstone has promised concerts every weekend in the revamped 19th century square, which now also has public restrooms and an outdoor cafe.

The improvements, which took 18 months to complete, are part of the mayor's renovation program for London's public spaces.

"Many of the capital's squares were built for people but have been taken over by traffic. What we want to do is return them to their original role at the heart of local communities," Livingstone said.

"I believe that pleasant, well-designed spaces make a better city, safer, more inclusive and more enjoyable."

The square, which attracts millions of tourists every year, was built to commemorate Adm. Horatio Nelson's victory over the French in 1805.

Feeding the thousands of pigeons that flocked to the square was a must-do on most tourists' lists until Livingstone ended the practice in order to rid the area of what he called "rats with wings." Several hundred birds still wander the square daily, despite signs asking visitors not to feed them.

The space also is popular with locals as a party spot, particularly on New Year's Eve and other big occasions.

Livingstone plans to add another Nelson to the square shortly, in the form of a Nelson Mandela statue on the new North Terrace.

"This will be a square with two Nelsons," he said.

"One that symbolizes the foundations of the British Empire and a man that symbolizes the end of that and the peaceful transformation to a multicultural society."

But the mayor has to overcome critics in the arts world who say the 9-foot bronze planned by sculptor Ian Walters will not fit in with the surroundings.

As police patrolled the square _ posing sometimes for photographs with tourists _ and children played on the lions that guard Nelson's column, many visitors said they approved of the changes.

"It's a nice place to sit and watch people go by," said Ariane Wolf, 28, a German tourist enjoying a break with her husband, Matthias, on the new concourse. "I think a new statue would look good."

But some visitors were not convinced the renovation was worth the money and the wait.

"Where are the seats, the lighting and the electronic security?" asked John Winter, a London resident, gesturing to the wide expanse. "Come nightfall this is going to be a pickpockets' paradise."