Focal adhesions (FAs) link the extracellular matrix to the actin cytoskeleton to mediate cell adhesion, migration, mechanosensing and signalling. FAs have conserved nanoscale protein organization, suggesting that the position of proteins within FAs regulates their activity and function. Vinculin binds different FA proteins to mediate distinct cellular functions, but how vinculin's interactions are spatiotemporally organized within FAs is unknown. Using interferometric photoactivation localization super-resolution microscopy to assay vinculin nanoscale localization and a FRET biosensor to assay vinculin conformation, we found that upward repositioning within the FA during FA maturation facilitates vinculin activation and mechanical reinforcement of FAs. Inactive vinculin localizes to the lower integrin signalling layer in FAs by binding to phospho-paxillin. Talin binding activates vinculin and targets active vinculin higher in FAs where vinculin can engage retrograde actin flow. Thus, specific protein interactions are spatially segregated within FAs at the nanoscale to regulate vinculin activation and function.