His maternal grandfather was the developer James Rouse (founder of The Rouse Company), who developed the city of Columbia, Maryland (where Norton grew up), helped develop Baltimore's Inner Harbor, Norfolk's Waterside Festival Marketplace and Boston's Quincy Market as well as co-founded Enterprise Community Partners with Norton's maternal stepgrandmother, Patty Rouse. Norton has two younger siblings—Molly and Jim, with whom he has professionally collaborated. From 1981 to 1985, along with his brother, he attended Camp Pasquaney, on the shores of Newfound Lake in Hebron, New Hampshire. There, he won the acting cup in 1984 and later returned to the camp's council for two years, directing theater. He maintains close connections with the camp. Edward was raised Episcopalian.
He graduated from Columbia's Wilde Lake High School in 1987. He attended Yale University, where he acted in university productions alongside Ron Livingston and Paul Giamatti graduating in 1991 with a Bachelor of Arts in History. Following graduation, Norton worked in Osaka, Japan consulting for his grandfather's company, Enterprise Community Partners. Norton can speak some Japanese. He appeared in an ESL textbook, Only in America, used by Nova, a formerly major English language school.
He is generally known for his reluctance to embrace his celebrity status, and has said, "If I ever have to stop taking the subway, I'm gonna have a heart attack." Edward has stated in interviews that he is a fan of the Baltimore Orioles and was involved in many of Cal Ripken Jr.'s retirement activities in 2001 when he was asked to be a part of Ripken's biography for Major League Baseball. He attended Ripken's ceremony at the Hall of Fame in July 2007. Norton has a private pilot license and discussed his flight training when interviewed on episodes of The Late Show with David Letterman and Inside the Actor's Studio.
Ed was a strong supporter of former New York State Governor Eliot Spitzer. He is a member of the board of trustees of Enterprise Community Partners a non-profit developer of affordable housing based in his hometown. He is also well-known for his support for environmental causes and renewable energy projects, such as Enterprise's Green Communities Initiative and BP's Solar Neighbors program. He also put time and money toward social activist causes, including improving the quality of living in low-income communities.
Norton's work with the HBO documentary By the People: The Election of Barack Obama led to a soundtrack, with proceeds going to Enterprise Community Partners and United Way. Norton also participated in a 2008 Fast Company story about Enterprise's green affordable housing.
Norton is president of the American branch of the Massai Wilderness Conservation Trust. To raise money for the trust, Norton fielded a team of 30 runners in the New York City Marathon on November 1, 2009. The team included Alanis Morissette and David Blane. Norton finished the event first among celebrities with a time of 3 hours, 48 minutes. Norton and his team raised over $1 million for the Trust.
He dated singer Courtney Love from 1996 to 1999, and actress Slama Hayek from 1999 to 2003. He ended his relationships with both women. Norton is 6 feet (1.83 m) tall, according to his interview on The Daily Show. He lives in New York City.
In May 2010, Norton launched a website called Crowdrise, which uses a social networking platform to help raise funds for charity.